Author Archives: Steve

The Foyer is a Room: For John Timmons

He made much and there’s too much of it to say it all in one weblog post.

On Friday, December 12, I, other friends, and Tunxis Community College lost the powerful presence of John Timmons. John was a faculty and staff member of the college for over thirty years. I met John after moving to Connecticut in the mid 90s and started working with him closely soon after. At the time he was directing our ambiguous instructional media department. Why “ambiguous” doesn’t matter. What matters is that the department assisted the college with digital instructional and online tools. I remember my first encounter with John, telling him stories about my work at UT El Paso with digital forums. I wanted his assistance with replication and system development for commuter students. He jumped right on the case. We found the Webboard system and got right to work, and this was the beginning of a long and profitable friendship.

We developed tools and pedagogy. We developed Tunxis’s New Media program. We attended conferences. We met with others to talk stories and writing in the Narratives group. He introduced me to the guitar and gave me one. He helped build an air hockey table for my son. We developed and grew the 100 Days diorama. We collaborated on art, books, film, and media projects. He was principal, along with his partner, in guiding me through a divorce and opening my heart to new love and loves (for which I will always be grateful–that’s for you, Bae!). This was deep and intimate stuff, and along with Maggie, whom he dearly loved, and other good friends, we joined and have joined in a life circle that will continue to grow and effervesce even in John’s absence, because he was a big man with a big heart and big talent. He will never really depart the planet or the minds of those who knew him.

These last years saw us continue a habit: we’d meet and smoke and drink coffee or water or beer and talk for hours about what we had been thinking and were thinking. This was an old habit. In the old days, we’d stand outside the college and hatch plans, provoke those who walked by, then walk back to our offices. Then we’d go out again. Even when we quit the smoking habit, we’d sneak a pack together and pick up the conversation. We shared the art we were enjoying. He’d show me some progressions. Every movie he suggested was a good one. When I think of him now, it’s hard to be sad. Rather, I’m just glad he was a part of my life and I smile. I’m glad he will never disappear. Much of what I make from now on will see his subtle genius in it.

His legacy is and will be wide. No matter the demand, John would never say “No” to it. John’s influence brought online education to Connecticut and not a lot of people know this. He built the College’s first website and initiated early crews into the wonders of the digital database. He brought Interactive Fiction programming to new media students. When he told me about his adventures with Zork, Deus Ex, and Half Life, I knew we’d hit it off. His big line in this regard was just to say: “The Foyer is a room.” Or do well by your Grammy. It was because of his leadership that many people now have professions; they must now work to fill John’s shoes and learn to avoid saying “No” to the things and people that matter.

We’re doing a lot with wishes these days and so I’ll close with a story that John inspired in one of our fiction projects. It speaks a lot to John and how he thought about things. Sometimes it’s hard to read between lines. It’s called Wishing Tree.

People have that book they remember reading. They find the book later in life, pick it up, open it, then put it down because it isn’t the book they’d read when they were young. It has the same title, the same words, the same folds in those places where the reader had paused. But it’s a different book. The reader wonders what happened.

When I went back to that old wish tree, the paper slips now brown with age and clinking in the breeze like dried fruit peels, I found the one I’d written and hung there so long ago. Understand that we can wish to keep something; we can wish to hang on to what we have. In this world, one can wish for riches or peace or a cure or even another world or rain. Given this, the tree had sagged, so weighted down it was with wishes. When they’re new the trees stand green and high and proud, but whey they grow old, they lean and look sad in the shaded evenings. Their backs grow crooked. There are so many wishes.

When I removed my wish, the tree kept its posture. It wasn’t such a heavy wish, not so bold, and wasn’t the kind of wish that would bring the clouds to the desert or the warm to winter or life to the dead. No, it was a simple wish, the script written small with the nervous hand of a child. It is, however, customary to keep wishes to oneself, and so I can’t reveal the wish, and I wouldn’t know what to make of it anyway, as, since the wish had been made, I couldn’t say what had happened, what had changed. Why such a wish would matter to me, unknown. But I do know that in most things, other than oil spills and the sicknesses I can do nothing about, I would wish for nothing, as I yearn for nothing more than what I have.


Information equals Energy

Over the last several months my email has been inundated with messages from the various angles of the Democratic party. Some are about requesting money. Others about begging for it in support of whatever cause.

In a constitutional, federal democracy the information and thereby the energy of government should flow the other way. It’s the parties who should be inundated with energy from the polis.

And, by the way, it’s nice to be able to type again.

When Social Media is Really Stupid Media

When I hear, read, think about intelligent systems or machine learning, sometimes my gross euphemism muscle goes a little spastic. I just got a notice that a good friend of mine who passed away a few years ago is deserving of a work anniversary from a social network and that he should be congratulated. It is a very strange confrontation. And somewhat morbid.

That’s all I’m going to say on the matter.

Marketing versus Storytelling

I’ve been doing a lot of work on a website, engineering for multiple media types, doing a little javascript, and digging deeper into the possibilities of WordPress and Bootstrap. It would have been a great Rails project but that move might have been a little much. In any event, my job isn’t content or “design.” But the talk today did stray into areas that I would lodge into the category of social media and digital ecosystem storytelling and getting the word out or spreading the news.

Hypothetically, if a writer wanted to create a world of multiple, interconnected novels, and wanted to ride the line between characters who use Twitter and YouTube, how would this be done to encourage metafictional and real-world parallels. The characters, say Marvin and Luisa, Tweet a backchannel to their main storyline or plot. The writer pays a few friends to play these roles on Twitter. In the novel, Marvin and Luisa go to Germany. They rent a car. They have a fight at the counter. After the fight, Marvin gives one version of events in a few Tweets and Luisa returns her version with Tweets of her own. Twitter is mentioned briefly in the novel.

Does the use of Twitter in this regard provide an extension to the story? Is it something that might stand alone, especially if the fictional characters who tweet accumulate real followers, who either expect something more or come to the novel later. If the novel is told from one point of view, what happens when the other characters who tweet provide their own. Does this expand the POV of the novel, invite, for example, a new consideration of the reliability of the teller?

This is not just a question about fiction writing. It’s also interesting in the sense that “marketing” is even more influenced by the thinking of the storyteller. It’s NOT Marketing vs Storytelling; they become one in the same.

On Conservatives and Higher Ed

I don’t know why I bristle at articles like Steven Hayward’s in The New Criterion. It’s called Conservatives and Higher Ed. Maybe I just don’t see or understand as he sees and understands and that might be my problem. He makes this comment in reference to Max Weber and some form of academic gamble:

Now it’s no longer just a steep hill—more like a rock climb without ropes. Max Weber said over a hundred years ago that “Academic life is an utter gamble.” The odds are getting steadily worse, and if you’re a rational person calculating the odds, you may shy away from a Ph.D. track, or consider non-academic paths as more attractive than academic paths. This probably describes conservatives more than liberals.

What Weber was making reference to was the tenuous position that academics have in attracting students to their courses. They might be fantastic scholars but horrible teachers, and this was a real issue. Hayward would seem to imply, also, that one rank is rational and other isn’t. But this is small beef.

My bigger question throughout the piece goes to definitions. Hayward writes

On the surface you’d think that the pool of conservative students who express satisfaction with higher education would lead more of them toward graduate paths, except for their evident alienation from the liberal dominance of the humanities and social sciences, perhaps along with a perceived higher salience for conservatives on pursuing “practical” professional vocations.

I don’t think it’s interesting to frame liberals and conservatives on a scale of “practicals.”

The larger implication in these kinds of articles is that Academia excludes and that college teaching just isn’t attractive to Conservatives because they either want to make real money or feel alienated or there is some sort of systematic bias against their hire in the Humanities. I think the matter is irrelevant to the core mission of the college.

First of all, how does one read Dickinson? The reader reads the poem. If the reader or scholar is Liberal or Conservative or has two heads, the reader must read the poem, unless the poet is banned for being some sort of radical to establishment ideology. Interlocutors can go from there. Does a political persuasion matter? Maybe, but at least we have the poem to work with. Reading or studying poetry may be implicated as a “narrow” pursuit rather than as grand generalist’s concern for breadth. Hayward’s call to Weaver is just odd. There are plenty of poetry readers who see the larger culture at play. Why Ideas Have Consequences became a Conservative “slogan” is beyond me. He quotes this from Weaver:

By far the most significant phase of the theory of the gentleman is its distrust of specialization. It is an ancient belief, going back to classical antiquity, that specialization of any kind is illiberal in a freeman. A man willing to bury himself in the details of some small endeavor has been considered lost to these larger considerations which must occupy the mind of a ruler.

Maybe this made sense in 1949, when specialists were studying atoms rather than attending to some requirement of becoming a ruler of something. The larger point matters, sure: we shouldn’t get so caught up in one thing such that the future is shut out and that we forget where we live. But this has very little to do, it seems to me, with who’s the liberal or conservative in the room but with the kinds of questions that might be asked: is a science focused charter school a good idea or is a school that treats all subject in depth the way to go? Artists require focus and serious study, however, and we shouldn’t confuse intense concentration with “narrowness.” Programming is difficult. It takes a lot of study. As in poetry. The person who takes up the guitar will find this out fast.

We just hired a new faculty member in our Humanities department. “We want more liberals around here” never came up as a question.

Snowden, Congress, and other Frustrations

Watching Meet the Press is a pretty frustrating activity. The focus is always on Edward Snowden. But there are other issues. For example, there are tens of thousands of security personnel on staff at NSA and other fuzzy institutions like it. Maybe if there was nothing to leak, the problem of the “next leaker” would go away or at least be mitigated.

Maybe if Congress people got to work figuring in a public way what is and isn’t legal for NSA to be doing, rather than wasting further time on events like Benghazi and spending ubertime on electioneering, then the issue would be mitigated.

Maybe if all that money getting elected was channelled toward building more hospitals and hiring more care personnel, the VA issue would be better managed. I hear there’s a jobs problem in the US. I just don’t trust all this hand wringing about things that can be fixed with a little elbow grease and firing of the brain cells. Hm, seems simple enough to me: when there are fewer people at the checkout counter, the other checkout counter lines grow longer. The lines at city DMVs are long because there aren’t enough counters.

It’s pretty simple to see that when a body calls the doctor’s office for whatever necessity, there’s a schedule, and time is equal to space. Let’s say the doctor has ten patients per day. The next day the number doubles. Let’s say the next day, the number triples. Gee, what to do about that?

The fact of the matter is that public institutions have been run down and neglected, from schools to the VA for several decades. The potholes created this winter must be giving public officials nightmares. Identifying problems in this regard is easy.  We know the solutions, too. We just don’t want to pay for it.


The End of Story in Godzilla

Peter Travers at Rolling Stone has a short review of Godzilla. He’s right about the “human” side of the film. I’d agree that the script is strange. I would ask this question, though, what would the human story be?

Chekhov could write a story about love. Gurov, for example, becomes a character who realized that he has it right in front of him. But the reader should be careful not to conflate Gurov’s story with other kinds of stories about love. Chekhov’s story is not about enduring connection, faithfulness (who know what Gurov will think later in his life), or giving or about how love is so fantastic. It’s about a moment of knowing, a realization in the moment that what he’s chased after so long has been with him in the form of Anna all along. In the same way, Connie’s story in Joyce Carol Oate’s famous tale is not about death or violence. It might be about growing pains or naivete. Figuring what “the story” is is a question I pose to students all the time and they struggle with it. They most of time fall back on plot summary as a response. Well, the story is about a kid who leaves his planet and goes on a romp with a pirate and a giant sloth.

I remember as a young teenager worrying whether a shark would crash through the shower wall. The space between the shower wall and the next house going measured about 6 feet or less. How a shark would punch through via air was hard for me to understand. Still, the fear was amazingly palpable, and I would rush through sometimes with soap in my hair during dry-off because I knew that the attack would come during the closed-eyed rinse-off. Jaws had this effect, a lingering fear or haunt of irrational event. Indeed, one of the lingering fears that followed out of my experience with Star Trek was not the wonder of space travel or a longing for world peace, but a fear of living amidst the spirit of totalitarianism and Hitleresque urban reality, where Nazi soldiers are relentlessly hunting down the “other” with no conscious thought. Star Trek taught to me to fear the relentlessness of bullshit.

Godzilla tries to follow two stories in its first hour. The cover-up story and the story of obsession due to personal loss. Both lines are killed pretty quick. Because the cover-up was benign–it doesn’t amount to the level Cranston envisions in a speech–and the obsession fruits nothing avertable other than a belated “Wow, you were right” from his son, Ford; the obsession has an a priori causal function: Brody wants to know what caused his wife’s death. But uncovering the cause has absolutely no consequence to the film.

The cover-up had no corporate, political, or Star Chamber etiology. Joe Brody’s wife Sandra is killed because a famished Monster needs to eat; whether this is known before hand or as an effect doesn’t really matter other than to understand that Monsters require nuclear fueling (but that’s pretty loose). This leads to a “proliferation” narrative where the hunger for nuclear power reveals an imbalance in the forces of nature, at least as viewed by Dr. Serizawa, and therefore requires a rebalancing. The balancer, of course, is guess who? But a proliferation backstory here doesn’t really make a lot of sense (there are too many real stories of this). The power of such a narrative doesn’t unify because the “gee, if we’d just left Godzilla alone in the first place” . . . then what?

And so the real story unfurls: survival and a story of “Gee, I hope Godzilla doesn’t hold a grudge because of our historical mistreatment of him.” The evolved Godzilla story is always the same, in other words: will he win the battle and save the day? That’s the grand narrative of sport without the save the day part.

The turnabout in the “real” story comes from Admiral Stenz, who finally relents to the good Dr’s plan: let Godzilla take care of the MUTOs; we can’t do it. This is the “let nature take it’s course” story. But that’s not a story; that’s a theme; nature will right itself if left alone. It’s a shorthand for plot devices and human retreat. Okay, let’s watch em fight now. In a way, cliche kills the potential storytelling in Godzilla because I don’t think many writers have put a lot of thought into what the story should or be as an alternative to the typical: will he triumph? Even in the older Godzilla films, story never really took significance. We wanted to see monsters and we wanted to see them fight. In the series, theme is more significant than plot, which is bad for storytelling but sufficient for seat time in the theater. People might argue the real story already happened or exists in the mythological ether and so Godzilla becomes psychological emollient, therapeutic elixir, cathartic spectacle, echo of dooms to come, or a symbol of the horrendous residue of war and irrational exuberance.

It seems to me that’s it’s difficult to sustain or write a “human” story in the context of disaster. When the Poseidon turns upside down, the story becomes “we have to get out of here,” a simple story of escape and survival. I find that The Poseidon Adventure and Willy Wonka have a lot in common. Both tales know what they want to accomplish. Not everyone is going to survive. The bad people will get what’s due them and that’s always satisfying. We smile or pump fists when the “bad guy” is spattered blind with acid by a fan-headed lizard and his pathetic can of shaving cream disappears in the mud.

There are no “bad guys” in Godzilla. There’s no force for the sake of it or evil to shine out of its hole, no henchpeople, jackboots, Smaug or Sauron, no veils of secrecy to disrupt. There are, however, unintended consequences to avert in their rawest form albeit of mysterious cause. No message exists in the film that says we’ve learned anything or that, yes, we should dump more funds into solar panels to avert the next disaster. Maybe people will interpret the preposition of imbalance in the film; maybe they will read climate change or human arrogance, or read something akin to “Let’s not revive the Tyrannosaurus.” I dont see it. What I see is human fatigue, sadness, and sense of ineffectualness.

When the tsunami comes, when the buildings crash down, when the dictator rallies, when dopes protect their political friends, when drought displaces and kills, thousands of human stories end just as the Cranston and cover-up stories end. Godzilla wakes from his fatigue after the fight, fatigued still, and requires recovery in the water off San Francisco. This monumental fatigue is a lingering image (it provides the most powerful juxtaposition in the film): the indefatigable monster. Maybe that’s good enough.

On Godzilla

The Godzilla movies were some of my first films. Godzilla and The Smog Monster we saw at the drive-in in El Paso in the early 70s. My son and I did some prepping. We watched the first version last week and finished with Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla last night, then went to the latest today.

I thought it was fantastic. I’ve read some no-spoiler critiques over the week out of curiosity if they came through the feeds. Some were interesting. Others were curious for their points of contention: the monster is too fat; the solutions to beat the monsters illogical, such as trying to defeat monsters that feed on nuclear power with nuclear weapons.

Gareth Edwards did a wonderful job with the notion of scale, though, which has always been a theme in Godzilla storytelling: scales regarding theme itself and scales regarding the relationship of just things juxtaposed to the monster. One of the common tropes in Godzilla is the image of the military (or the notion of human force), especially as seen with toy tanks lined up in preposterous ineffectiveness. Edward’s Godzilla is a moving landscape and imagines how a living landscape of tremendous size would displace water and air and fit within the built world. Consider how a beetle or an ant would translate human motility in film.

In the film, especially near the end, Godzilla is at war with gravity itself. The filmmakers appear to grasp the physical reality of a creature of such tremendous mass fighting the strength of the earth’s pull. From a game perspective, the ending boss battle is probably the best thing I’ve seen in a long time. It was the perfect read of later Godzilla movies that treated the monster with more humor and sense of emotional connection than the somber pickle-looking thing of the 1954/1956 work, which is understandable. Even still, at the time, they were pretty technically difficult to pull off.

It seems to me that the Edward’s version paid attention to the problem of eyes, also. He fixed this issue. Later in the film, the eyes of the monster tell their own story, related to the issue of massive girth, and the sadness and tragedy that comes with this “problem of such size.”

It’s a winner for me.